Listen, Listen, Listen: Practical Advice from Psychologist Michael Thompson on Motivating Juniors to Focus on College

Yesterday, psychologist and author Michael Thompson joined us to provide a window into the adolescent psyche and how that can affect the interactions between parent and teen as the college application process begins. Today, in Part 2 of Thompson's post, he has some excellent recommendations – and support – for parents so that they can put these insights into action and meaningfully advise their sons and daughters.


With all the developmental observations and warnings from my previous post in mind, here are eight suggestions for motivating your high school junior to focus on the college process. 

1) Start with yourself.  Before you approach your child, go to a friend whose child has gone through the process.  Choose someone who is reasonable and honest, who will explain what worked and who will also confess to mistakes.  If you have a parent/friend you respect to walk you through the process, it will arm you and calm you.

2) Talk to a teacher, coach or college advisor at your child’s school to find out when juniors typically start to focus on college.  Some schools have a meeting with college advisors, etc.  All students have a trusted coach or teacher at their school whom you can ask two questions:  “Has my child begun to think about college?”  and “Do you think it is too early for me to begin discussing the college process with my child?”  If the answer to the first question is “no,” that tells you to proceed slowly.  If the answer to the second question is “yes,” you have to ask that person, “Why is it too early?”  Listen to his or her answer and evaluate it on the merits of the argument he or she makes.

3) Put your cards on the table, ask questions and listen, listen, listen to the answers. Tell your child that you have started to think about the college process, perhaps even to worry about the amount of work it will involve, and you wonder whether he or she has begun to think about applying to college.  If the answer is “yes,” then ask:  “How do you see the whole college admissions thing?  What have you been thinking about it?”  Listen, listen, listen to your son's or daughter’s answers.  Don’t be in a hurry to talk about the names of colleges

When you ask your child about college and she or he says, “I don’t know,” I suggest you ask, “Are any students in your class thinking about college?”  “What are they saying?”  “Are your close friends thinking about it?” The most motivating thing in a teenager’s life is what friends are doing and thinking about.

 If you ask your high school junior about college and he or she pushes the idea away, I suggest that you ask some questions about your child’s reluctance to engage with it and empathize with his or her point of view.  “Yes, I agree it will be a pain in the ass.  The college process has gotten much too big and complicated.” But then introduce some matter-of-fact reality.  “I think that’s why parents are getting so involved these days, to try and lift the burden.”  Ask when your child thinks is the right time to start the process.  If he or she says the fall of senior year, then say, “That worries me,” and let the conversation end….for now.

4)  Be willing to listen to your child’s negativity.  Teens tend to be dismissive, detached and ironic.  They tend to lead off with negativity (“You really have to know someone important to get into the great colleges” or “I could never get into X or Y” or “It’s all so stupid”). Don’t jump at that bait.  It just causes a fight.  Above all, don’t give eleventh graders the upbeat Chamber of Commerce talk about how meaningful and important this all is.  Be willing to absorb some of their cynicism about the process.  “Sorry that you feel this discouraged with the college process.  Perhaps we can talk about it again in a couple of weeks.”  Wait for a better opening.

5)  Use your child as a consultant on his or her journey through the process.  It will require a lot of listening and it will require you to pass some tests.  The first and most important test is your willingness to learn what your child already knows about it.

“Do you have a friend who loves his or her college?

          “Are you thinking about a college like that?

 “Have any of the boys on your team played sports in college?”

          “Did they like their coaches; did they get any playing time? “

 “Are you thinking about a big or small college?”

“How far away from home do you think you want to be?”

Don’t be frightened by a general reluctance to engage with the college process.  Ask questions like, “Are you tired of school?” “Have you thought about working for a year before you go to college?”  “Do you know any kids who have taken a year off before college?”  “How did it work out for them?”

6) Let your child teach you what he or she has heard or learned.  Researchers tell us that adolescents are happiest when they are teaching their parents something, not when their parents are teaching them. (One perceptive person observed that, “Children always love to learn but they don’t often like being taught.”) It is never a bad thing to ask your teen, “What are you hearing about the University of X or Y?”  “What do other kids say about colleges A and B?” 

7)  Please be clear about your desires and your limits with respect to the college process.  There are things you may want but things you cannot do for your child.  Say them out loud. For example, “I don’t need to go on every college trip with you, but your father and I would like to go on at least one trip with you.  It would be tough to talk about colleges with you if we had never seen any of them.”  “I hear that you don’t want to go on college trips in the junior year, but we don’t want to be in a position of having to go on several trips in the fall of senior year.  Let’s compromise and do one this spring, one this summer and one in the fall.”

8) Talk openly and realistically about money early in the process (Don’t wait and don’t use money for leverage).  Whether you are going to plunk down forty thousand dollars or a quarter of a million dollars for a child’s college education, it is going to be a sacrifice.  I have never met a family that was not willing to stretch their budget to try to accommodate their child’s college tuition.  For many high school students, the talks that they have with their parents about money for college are the first, most extensive talks they have ever had with their parents about their income, savings and retirement funds.  These are important conversations and they should be repeated.  It is often the first time a teenager learns what “pre-tax dollars” actually mean.

One of the funniest parents I ever met at my school said to me, “I have told my son that the choice is that he can go wherever he wants to college, but I am sending the tuition to Yale.”  He laughed and I laughed with him because I understood he was expressing a wish not a plan.  However, it always ends badly when parents actually try to use their money to pressure their child or leverage their child’s college choices, i.e. “I’ll pay for a great college, but if you don’t get in to X or Y, you can go to the state university.” In the first place, it damages the relationship between parent and child. Secondly, I have never seen a parent follow through with the threat.  Empty threats at any point in the college process are a mistake.

Part One of Michael Thompson's post which discusses the developmental aspects of communicating with 11th graders can be seen here.

Michael Thompson is a psychologist, school consultant and the author or coauthor of nine books including the New York Times bestseller “Raising Cain” and “The Pressured Child: Freeing Our Kids from Performance Overdrive and Helping Them Find Success in School and Life.”  He is the supervising psychologist at the Belmont Hill School, an all-boys independent school outsideBoston and he has worked with students, teachers and parents in over seven hundred schools around the world.

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